OPINION Guest column

Has childhood disappeared?

Our society is becoming inhospitable to the joyful concept of letting kids be kids.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette illustration by John Deering
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette illustration by John Deering

Given the concerns about kids and social media these days, one has to wonder if the notion of childhood itself has finally been pushed to the brink of extinction.

Social critic Neil Postman thought so more than 40 years ago when his controversial book "The Disappearance of Childhood" was published. Among other things, he basically charged the electronic media with chasing kids off the playground while also turning them into miniature adults. Sound familiar?

Postman cited other factors, like a rising divorce rate and a decline in literacy, but his major concern was how electronic media bypassed parents as gatekeepers of the sensitive, adult-only information slowly doled out to children as they developed into young adults. Thanks to television, he wrote, a 6-year-old basically now had access to the same information as a 60-year-old.

To prove his points, Postman traced the rise of childhood in Europe after the medieval period where there was no conception of child development, sequential learning, or schooling as a preparation for an adult world. Children were treated as miniature adults.

Things began to change quickly, however, about the time Gutenberg kick-started his printing press company. Coupled with a rise in literacy and an emerging middle class, the concept of childhood took root. Chief among its features was the idea

of shame--stuff like tragedies, violence, madness, sex--and how adults began to think they should keep all that away from children.

"Without a well-developed idea of shame, childhood cannot exist," Postman wrote. "Such an idea is only possible in a culture in which there is a sharp distinction between the adult world and the child's world."

Mass printing began to usher in books on every conceivable subject, including how-to books on raising kids. Soon following were books aimed at kids themselves, helping to further solidify the new status of childhood. Being a kid started to become cool, unless your family was poor and you and your siblings had to help fuel the new industrial machines in England and the U.S.

The invention of the printing press also created a new definition of adulthood based on reading competence and, correspondingly, a new conception of childhood based on reading incompetence: Kids now had to learn to read in order to earn their way into the adult world. Think back to when you were a kid and your parents wouldn't tell you all that much about sex, but you could go to the public library and find a book or two to fill in the details.

The assault on childhood began in earnest in the 1950s after television popped into living rooms the world over. Watching it required no skills at all, nor did viewers develop any skills. Suddenly, television was recasting the world of ideas into icons and images. As Postman put it, "television offers a fairly primitive but irresistible alternative to the linear and sequential logic of the printed word."

And, since it's accessible by all, television erodes the dividing line between adult and child.

Electronic media also finds it impossible to withhold any secrets. You only have to watch a few talk shows to know that taboos are the hot topics and that nothing is off limits. Postman's position was that electronic media represented a powerful assault, not just on childhood, but also on language and literacy. It's hard to argue with it, considering the facts.

In 1950, the Bureau of the Census said that less than 10 percent of adult Americans were illiterate. Today the figure is just over 20 percent. In a recent report, the National Literacy Institute says about 40 percent of students across the nation can't read at a basic level, and almost 70 percent of low-income fourth-grade students can't read at a basic level.

Reading aside, there are other factors that indicate our society largely has become inhospitable to the concept of childhood. For example, guns now have emerged as the leading cause of death of children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Last year, the Journal of Pediatrics noted that rates of anxiety and depression among school-aged children and teens in the U. S. were at an all-time high. In 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children's Hospital Association issued a joint statement to the Biden administration that child and adolescent mental health be declared a national emergency.

Is childhood also being subsumed by problems that used to be confined mainly to the adult world? Consider the following statistics compiled by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences:

In Arkansas, kids are exposed to potentially traumatic events at higher rates than the national average. Nine percent have witnessed domestic violence; one in seven experiences physical, emotional or sexual abuse or neglect in a given year; 13 percent live with a parent with a substance abuse problem, and 11 percent live with a parent who has serious mental issues. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in adolescents and young adults.

Growing concerns about the role of social media in the lives of children, combined with a decrease in the amount of time kids spend playing with other kids, also present unique and difficult challenges.

A doctor with the American Psychological Association told a Senate Judiciary Committee recently that when it comes to youths' cravings for social attention, they are "all gas pedal with no brakes." Social media sites ostensibly exist to make social connections but many kids use the sites to compare themselves to others, seeking "likes" and other metrics rather than healthy successful relationships.

"In other words," the doctor said, "social media offers the 'empty calories' of social interaction that appear to help satiate our biological and psychological needs but do not contain any of the healthy ingredients necessary to reap benefits." For example, kids can easily access sites that glamorize eating disorders, cutting, and other harmful behaviors.

Online, kids are also fair game for intense predatory marketing campaigns. For years now, big companies have been pitching products to them through streaming channels like YouTube, where kids will sit for hours basically watching commercials thinly disguised as entertainment.

Emily Dreyfuss, author and mother of an 8-year-old boy, wrote in The New York Times recently that "the whole issue of influencer-marketing to youth, even for addictive products regulated by the government, falls into a legal and technical canyon so vast that the next generation is being lost in it."

The online world, she said, is invisible to parents because they don't see the same things kids see. "Thanks to algorithms and ad targeting, I see videos about the best lawn fertilizer and wrinkle laser maps, while [my young son] is being fed reviews of flavored vape pens and beautiful women livestreaming themselves gambling crypto, and urging him to gamble, too."

Epic Games, owner of the wildly popular Fortnite game, recently agreed to a record settlement of $520 million after a lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission alleging violations of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

Around 400 million people, mostly under 13, play Fortnite, which was using "dark patterns" designed to rack up charges without consumers' express consent. Epic's default settings also allowed strangers to communicate with children and teens under 18. The FTC said that through its registration process, Epic also collected kids' personal information, including their full names, email addresses and user names without getting parental consent.

Today's new parenting tasks seems to include keeping the charge cards hidden. Another one is monitoring the vast array of streaming services kids can access.

The Parents' Television and Media Council, a secular group that monitors electronic media, recently released its annual "Naughty List" that included Meta, parent company of Facebook and Instagram. Meta, PTCM noted, continues to be revealed by media outlets, whistle-blowers, and lawsuits as fueling child sexual exploitation, providing a platform for pedophiles, and enabling sexually explicit content and other harmful content, especially to teenage girls.

HBO also landed on the "Naughty List" for leading the charge toward marketing explicit adult content to children and teens, according to PTCM director Melissa Henson.

Many of these companies, when hauled before Congress, have pledged to add safety features for the protection of children, but some think it's too little too late.

"If Meta is really serious about safety, they would get out of the way of regulation," said Josh Goslin, executive director at Fairplay, a nonprofit group that aims to end marketing to children. "They've had more than a decade to make their platform safer for young people and they've failed miserably."

So is it too late for parents to claw back some childhood for their kids? Postman admitted he didn't have many answers, although he urged parents to limit exposure to media, and whenever possible provide kids a critique of objectionable themes and values of the media content. Another one is pretty simple.

In a recent magazine article, "The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychotherapy," researcher Dr. Peter Gray notes that the concept of play, which does not include play activities directed by adults, has been in decline since 1955.

"Play, especially social play with other children, serves a variety of developmental functions, all of which promote children's health. In the absence of such play, children fail to acquire the social and emotional skills that are essential for healthy psychological development."

The doctor seems to be suggesting a radical prescription for how to reinvigorate childhood: Maybe just put the kids out in the yard and make them leave their devices in the house.

Perhaps another idea is to close ranks on the companies that are making millions off marketing to kids while also exposing them to dangerous circumstances. Yet another is to increase social services for kids and make them more widely available.

"Let's stop treating the Internet like a monster we can't control," Emily Dreyfuss urged in her NYT article. "We built it. We foisted it upon our children. We'd better try to protect them from its potential harms."

Postman, who died in 2003, couldn't have foreseen all the social media issues that would soon help to eat away at the foundation of childhood but he was right in adding it to the list of the world's most endangered things.

Here's the last paragraph of his book: "It is not conceivable that our culture will forget that it needs children. But it is halfway toward forgetting that children need childhood. Those who insist on remembering shall perform a noble service."

Rod Lorenzen is a writer and former publisher who lives in Little Rock.

  photo  Children in a military family gather around the TV set in 1954 at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine. The advent of television helped erode the dividing line between adult and child. (AP file photo)

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